Q&A: As speaker, Egolf pledges ‘a public and transparent process’ in the House

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Democrats in the N.M. House of Representatives learned some things from being in the minority for the last two years, Brian Egolf says.

“When we walked onto the floor of the House for the past two years, we knew we would lose important votes,” Egolf said. “… We learned that standing up for what we believe in is always the right choice.”

Brian Egolf

Courtesy photo

Brian Egolf

“We also learned that transparency and following the rules is critical and that a transparent government that follows the rules will maintain faith with the people of New Mexico,” he said.

Now, with Democrats retaking control of the House when the Legislature begins a 60-day session on Tuesday, Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, is set to become speaker of the House. How does he plan to lead that chamber?

“Our approach going forward is to engage the public in a public and transparent process,” Egolf pledged. “We will maintain committee schedules that are friendly to the public, and we will ensure that the media and the people of our state have notice of important debates, in committee and on the floor of the House.”

Egolf made his comments in an interview NMPolitics.net conducted by email — the latest in our Q&A series with people involved in New Mexico politics and government.

Egolf also talked about ethics reform, the budget and economy, and education. And he had kind words for outgoing Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, who resigned from the House after his party lost the majority in the November election.

“I have tremendous respect for him and his devotion and service to New Mexico,” Egolf said. “We certainly disagreed on political matters, but I do not think we have ever had a disagreeable moment… on the floor of the House or elsewhere.”

“Speaker Tripp went to great lengths to show respect to me and my Democratic colleagues; this is an example I will follow during the 53rd Legislature and beyond,” Egolf said.

Here’s our full interview, with questions in bold and Egolf’s answers immediately following:

You’re on track to become speaker of the N.M. House of Representatives, taking the place of Don Tripp. What words do you have for and about Tripp as you take over?

I believe Speaker Tripp knows, though I’m glad to say again, that I have tremendous respect for him and his devotion and service to New Mexico. We certainly disagreed on political matters, but I do not think we have ever had a disagreeable moment… on the floor of the House or elsewhere. Speaker Tripp went to great lengths to show respect to me and my Democratic colleagues; this is an example I will follow during the 53rd Legislature and beyond.

For the last two years, Democrats were in the minority in the House for the first time in decades. What did you learn from being in the minority? How will you apply what you’ve learned now that your party is back in control in the House and you’re the chamber’s leader?

We learned that fighting for what we believe in – our values and the values of everyday New Mexicans – is incredibly important. When we walked onto the floor of the House for the past two years, we knew we would lose important votes. But we also knew that fighting in defense of our values and vision for New Mexico sent a powerful message to the people of our state: that we care deeply about the welfare and future of New Mexico and its people. We learned that standing up for what we believe in is always the right choice. We also learned that transparency and following the rules is critical and that a transparent government that follows the rules will maintain faith with the people of New Mexico.

Democrats protested a middle-of-the-night hearing on legislation to reinstate the death penalty in October, making an unsuccessful plea to Tripp for fairness and transparency. I’ve witnessed Democratic leaders, pre-2014 when your party controlled the House, pull some pretty audacious political stunts like the one Republicans pulled in October. Tell us about your leadership style. Do you plan to lead with the fairness and transparency you asked Tripp for in October? Will there be any middle-of-the-night hearings on your watch?

The death penalty debate and vote in the 2016 special session was a low-water mark for transparency and openness in the House. Calling up that proposal after midnight (and after a contentious budget-related debate) was not a good decision; plowing ahead with the debate, despite pleas to pause in the name of informing the public, compounded the error; and passing the bill in the dead-of-night was an absolute low point for public engagement and transparency in the House.

Our approach going forward is to engage the public in a public and transparent process. We will maintain committee schedules that are friendly to the public, and we will ensure that the media and the people of our state have notice of important debates, in committee and on the floor of the House. My approach to leadership is one of collaboration, communication and transparency. This has served our Democratic Caucus well for the last two years, and I believe it will serve us well into the future. There is a possibility that the House will have late-night debates and votes over the next two years, especially in the final days of a session; our Constitution’s hard-deadline for sessions makes it impossible to say that there will not be a rush to pass critical bills in the waning hours of a session. We can make a commitment, however, to do everything possible to engage the media and the people of New Mexico in the process and not to pass bills through the House that have not received fair, open and transparent consideration in the House.

Republicans changed the House’s committee structure when they took over in 2014. What changes, if any, do you plan to make to House procedures or the committee structure?

We will reorganize the committees of the House. Our committees will be: Agriculture & Water Resources; Appropriations & Finance; Business & Industry; Consumer & Public Affairs; Education; Energy, Environment & Natural Resources; Health and Human Services; Judiciary; Labor & Economic Development; Local Government, Elections, Land Grants & Cultural Affairs; State Government, Indian & Veterans’ Affairs; Taxation & Revenue; Transportation, Public Works & Capital Improvements.

Do you support the creation of an independent ethics commission to set standards for conduct in government and police violations? Why or why not? Such legislation has passed the House before with bipartisan support but died in the Senate. If you support such legislation, what can you do to help it become law?

Yes. I have introduced bills to create such a commission for many years. During the upcoming session I plan to do all I can to give a bill creating a strong public accountability board quick passage in the House.

What do you believe policymakers need to do in the upcoming session to address the state’s budget problems? Should the state implement policies that raise new revenue or, as Gov. Susana Martinez desires, should the state rely solely on budget cuts? If you support policies that would raise additional revenue, which, and why?

Too many New Mexican families are struggling to make ends meet, pay their mortgage at the end of the month, or feed their families. After working hard and playing by the rules their entire lives, too many families still find their dreams out of reach. As we make these critical decisions, we must welcome and weigh carefully the input from hard working families across this state. 

Simply put, we must take a balanced approach – this is the only way to protect classroom funding, health-care delivery, public safety, and other critical services without imposing debilitating reductions to the services that we rely on every day.

There are many tax expenditures that can be reduced or eliminated because they have failed to create jobs or grow the economy. Additionally, it  make sense to level the playing field between local businesses and Amazon by requiring internet retailers to follow the same rules as our home-grown businesses. I am taking a hard look at many other options, and look forward to getting the public’s input as we craft a balanced approach.

Long-term, it’s clear the state must diversify its economy and reduce reliance on the oil and gas industry. How do we do that?

I’ve spent the last month engaged in a statewide job creation tour with representatives from both sides of the aisle, which will continue through 2017. What I’ve learned so far is that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. We’ve had specific, actionable ideas from everyday small business owners, new and growing companies, and from existing industries at every stop. For example, during our time in Las Cruces we heard about the need for value-added agriculture infrastructure. Training for young people who grew up on farms and ranches could support them in returning home and bringing innovation to their family businesses. Investing in value-added labs and food processing facilities that could be shared and rented by local businesses could create more jobs in turn. This is just one example of the many ideas that we heard, and we are focused on now turning those ideas into legislation.

Do you support a proposal to take money from the state’s Permanent Fund for early childhood programs such as home visiting and child-care assistance? Why or why not? What chance does such legislation have in the upcoming session?

I support increasing the distributions from the state’ Permanent Fund for early childhood programs.  While we are faced with serious work to fix our budget, we can’t just focus on the immediate concern. Investing in early childhood is a building block to a more secure future for New Mexican families.  Investing now will help us turn the state around, so that we don’t have to keep coming back to a budget in the red.

The state spends a great deal of money on public education, but we arguably haven’t seen significant improvement in our system for educating our children. What do you believe the state can do to improve its public education system?

Investing in our teachers by offering professional-level salaries and opportunities for professional development, keeping classrooms small, and local innovation are key components of turning our educational system around.

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